Formula 1: what a difference virtualisation makes

Steve Cassidy
4 Jul 2014

Here at Silverstone the preparations for the British Formula 1 Grand Prix are well under way. While the weekend will be full of headlines surrounding Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and the various other British hopefuls, it's intriguing to see how important the background technology is; and in particular, how virtualisation is giving Caterham Racing a time-saving edge.

While I like to be invited to almost any kind of junket, I had been of the view that Formula 1 races were more like torture based on an earlier visit to Monza back in 2011. However, the British know how to make an event both engaging and calm, which suits me far better - and in disappointing technological news, this season's F1 cars are quiet.

Astonishingly quiet, in fact: you can't even really hear the whistle of the turbo, never mind the roar of internal combustion. The occasional off-throttle moment may produce the odd snort, but otherwise it's now so quiet you can quite happily have a conversation standing in the pit lane.

This pace-of-change feeling is reflected in the way the teams discuss their hunt for performance. The rules on how they can save weight, increase power, or decrease fuel consumption are increasingly addressed by bigger, better and smarter examples of software engineering.

My hosts here are Caterham Racing - not because I grew up in the town whose name they have taken, but because their major sponsor is Dell. Several tables of techno types from the press, Dell and Intel have staked a claim to a quiet corner (now that such things exist) of the hospitality suite.

Dutiful chap that I am, I was looking for a bit of an angle  - this is my second time on such a junket so I wondered what might have changed since 2011 - and as it so happened, the precious trackside tech man has been promoted, and a much younger version was entrusted with the server rack tour this time.

Setting up the trackside server farm in the old job had been a fraught 24-hour burst of hard work at each track

He remarked that he was massively relieved to have joined Caterham, because the comparison between the effort he had been obliged to expend at his last (nameless) team, and this, was like night and day. Literally: setting up the trackside server farm in the old job had been a fraught 24-hour burst of hard work at each track.

With Caterham's mix of Dell servers (three PowerEdge R720s) and VMware ESXi to deliver 42 servers per host, the setup time was well within the first day of on-site time. No late night, no agonies just when the stamina is needed the most: plug in and go.

What is the difference, then, we all asked?

Simple. Most of the other teams have not virtualised their servers. Where Caterham are moving a single and not full populated 2/3rds height server rack, the others are moving 9 full-fat racks. At lunch, on this subject, one of the F1 veterans said that Honda were in the habit of travelling with 16 physical domain controllers. Sixteen!

There could be some reasons why this is so. It may be driven by zealous software package suppliers, unwilling to commit to a service level without a machine to themselves. It could be that in those teams, the guy running the supercomputer cluster is in charge of all specifications, and he just thinks in terms of 100% load, all the time. Or it could be that someone just fancies maximising their hardware spend every year.

But looking at the Dell rack in the back of the Caterham truck, I know which version of this architecture I'd rather be looking after.

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